Thursday, October 28, 2010

Understanding Islam, Islamism, and Jihad: A Practical Example

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By Barry Rubin

An Egyptian Islamist cleric named Ibrahim al-Khouli is interviewed on television, with translation by MEMRI. What can we learn from his words? A lot.

"What is the nature of our relations with [the West]? They are relations of Crusader aggression against the land of Islam–in Afghanistan, in Iraq, which was destroyed and removed from history....”

Supposedly, though this is not necessary what actually happens, Jihad is supposedly only defensive. However, it is easy to portray anything as defensive by dissociating cause and effect. Why did U.S. forces go into Afghanistan? It was as a response to the September 11 attacks. If there had been no September 11 attacks U.S. forces would not have attacked Afghanistan and the Taliban would probably still be ruling there.

Iraq is somewhat more complex. But of course the first such U.S. attack, in 1991, was in response to an Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and at the request of the Kuwaitis, Saudis, and other Arabic-speaking, Muslim-majority countries. In 2003, whether the action was rightly guided or not, it was in response to a belief that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons and breaking agreements in a way that would lead to future aggression on Baghdad’s part. And that Iraqi aggression would be against other Muslim-majority countries.

A particularly fascinating line is that Iraq has been "removed from history." What does this mean? That Iraq's fate is not supposed to be a happy or peaceful or democratic country--goals certainly not achieved but which are not "supposed" to be achieved. Iraq and its people are "supposed" to be a cog in the wheel of Islamist revolution. Iraq, then, does not belong to its own people but to the will of Allah, as interpreted by the radical totalitarians. And if this means Iraqis have no "right" to live peaceful lives but must suffer decades of war, suffering, and destruction, so be it.

So here are three underlying principles that guide the radical Islamists and their allies but which Westerners wouldn’t swallow if they were presented openly and directly:

--They have the right to attack the West but the West has no right to defend itself.

--They will pretend that the battle is one of the West against the Muslims, while actually it is a battle among Muslims in which the West might help defend one group of Muslims against another.

--Their goal is to use Jihad to defeat the West simultaneously with using lies and guilt to make the West so afraid of offending Islam that it doesn't interfere while Islamists take over the Muslim-majority world.

(By the way, always note that Israel is only one issue among many and often nowadays is pretty secondary. One reason is the importance of other issues; another is the general Islamist assumption that after they take over Muslim-majority countries and chase out Western influence, disposing of Israel would be pretty easy and thus that task can wait for a while.)

Khouli continues:

"Forget about [Usama] bin Laden and al-Qaeda. That’s not what I’m talking about. I am talking about the jihad of the entire nation….I’m talking about jihad which is led by the Islamic scholars, and the entire nation will be mobilized for the sake of the supreme jihad. This will lead us to a confrontation....We should follow the example of the young men of the Taliban. A group of several thousands of students [Taliban] have been crushing NATO in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Where are the armies of the Muslims?"

Here there are three additional lessons.

First, al-Qaida is only a portion of the problem, and the less important part at that. True, al-Qaida is the most likely group to try to attack America and its citizens or institutions abroad at present. Yet the big strategic danger for U.S. interests is the overthrow of entire countries, the plunging of millions of people into revolution or civil war. Revolution, not terrorism, is the main threat; transforming countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia into new Irans and the extension of Tehran’s power throughout the region is the big danger.

Second, the Jihadists recognize that if they are going to mobilize the masses they must first convince the people that the West is weakly in retreat and that victory is easy. Anything that enhances that impression, therefore, strengthens the revolutionaries and makes violence more--not less--likely.

Third, however, is the Islamists' disappointment that things aren't going better. He asks, “Where are the armies of the Muslims?” Because, at least up to now,  revolutionary Islamists cannot persuade most Muslims to rise up, wage jihad, overthrow their rulers, wipe out Israel, and attack the West.

Why is this? Some are natural human forces of individuals preferring safety and a materially better life to sacrificing themselves. Others oppose the Islamists because they support their nationalist governments or have communal-ethnic loyalties (the Kurds, for example, or the different competing groups in Lebanon). And many simply don’t believe the revolutionary Islamist interpretation of Islam.

All of these people (except for the small minority of Christians among them) are Muslims. They know what's in the Koran and understand their own religion. Yet they do not accept what the revolutionaries tell them is the “only” proper interpretation of Islam. It is as ridiculous to say that all Muslims “must” be radical and Jihad-minded if they properly understand their own religion as it is to say that Islam is a religion of peace and that the radicals are only a tiny minority who misunderstand their own religion.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at and of his blog, Rubin Reports,

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